Education Opinion

Comparative Education Work Should Begin at Home

By James E. Ryan — December 07, 2016 2 min read

Dear Readers,

The demands of teaching a course and devoting a fair bit of time to writing a book have kept me from blogging as often as I’d hoped. But I’m back, and intend to post at least once every other week, if not more. There are more questions to ask than ever.

The new PISA scores are just out. The scores usually show, as they did again this year, that the United States performs relatively poorly compared with other countries, including some regular high-performers like Singapore and Finland, and some new comers to the top of the list, like Estonia.

This way of reporting is slightly misleading because the United States doesn’t have an education system. It has at least 51 of them--one for each state, plus the District of Columbia. You might say that we actually have over 14,000 systems, which is the number of school districts in the country. But for now, let’s stick with just 51, because there is no plausible way to contend that the United States has a single, national school system, and that’s the important point.

So what, you ask? The reason this matters is that there are huge variations among states in terms of performance, and some states fare quite well in international comparisons. If Massachusetts were a country, for example, we would be singing its praises. Indeed, its students are close to the top in the world in reading and science scores, about on par with Finland and competitive with Singapore and mainland China, though their math scores were not as impressive. Lumping all of the states together for purposes of PISA reporting misses this variation, which leads to the next point.

Inevitably, when the PISA scores are reported, policymakers and pundits begin to ask: what are they doing in places like Singapore and Finland (and soon, Estonia) to produce such great results? And can we do more of that here? This is a natural response. It’s also a little ludicrous. Singapore has about half a million students, in total. Finland has about a million. The countries are as different from each other as they are from the United States, which has roughly 50 million students and is dramatically more diverse than either Singapore or Finland.

This is not to suggest we can learn nothing from Singapore, Finland, or Estonia. We can. (Though we need to resist falling prey to the temptation to cherry pick the features of the system we like and to ignore the features we don’t.) Nor is to suggest that the overall PISA scores for the US are not troubling. They are. But if we are interested in learning from successful school systems, why not begin that work at home, by looking at what successful systems are doing here? If we are going to learn useful lessons by comparing one system to another, aren’t we more likely to learn from places that look more like the United States in terms of demographics, politics, and culture? And it’s hard to look more like the United States than, well, one of those states.

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